The Poetry of Dwelling by Professor Ipshita Chanda, Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, Author of Selfing the City: Single Women Migrants and Their Lives in Kolkata,
Published by SAGE Publications.
Having come to a city from a small town and then lived there for more than a decade, a mutuality took shape between the city and my self as our acquaintance grew. This was sometimes contradictory and mostly unremarked until I began to talk to other women who had done the same. They too had come from different small towns, villages or the suburbs and had to struggle to find a home and then craft a life in a strange place promising both the protection and the threat of anonymity. Our moving to the city was an undeniable fact; we were migrants, but the struggle of staying on was the reality that we wanted to understand. As single women who came to the city, we remained ‘outsiders’ in our own minds and in the minds of those who were around us, in myriad ways:
Some landladies provided palatable food and comfortable housing but were blessed with dodgy sons.
Some corner flat uncles were interested in where and how long and with whom one went out or returned.
Roommates were of different kinds, though we were all single women from small towns and smaller cities trying to “fit in “or at least become invisible and not attract attention: a condition that often gave us pleasure but in some circumstances, was terrifying.
Perhaps here a conflict appeared between the condition of our lives and our attempt to “fit in”, the latter an effort quite contradictory to the idea of the ‘outsider’ by choice. But we were constrained by the circumstances of our choice to relocate to the city. As ‘women’, as ‘single’ women, as aspiring ‘urban’ women, living alone sans family in a city which is in the popular imagination the hub of all opportunity, good and evil, with results joyous or harmful, we were subject to norms and conventions entirely foreign to our situation. Some trivial instances: the gas delivery man will come between 10am and 4 pm because those are his work-hours – what can be done if they coincide with yours, so what if you are a single woman living alone? Nuclear families have the same problem. You have to move quite frequently – in the days before packers and movers, those whom you, as a single woman without ‘family’ in the city could rely on, were those whom you called ‘friends’.
Our material condition as outsiders decided our lives and inclinations – whether we tended to cleave together or apart, the fact that we did not “belong”, were “outsiders” came to us again and again in the course of thinking about how having ‘migrated’, we experienced our destination which changed for us and through us, even in the process that it changed us.
And in changing us, this encounter with the city brought to those of us who wanted to reflect upon the experience in the form of our past and the hopes and projects that are our future, the understanding that what we call change is not a great shattering event but a pragmatic necessity and a secret test of what we as the individuals we so strongly like to believe we are, are willing to undergo. The change which responds to my circumstances is not an alien reality outside the boundaries of my being – it is my self, made by my volition or lack of will. The boundaries that seem to define my limits reshape them constantly, urged by the thirst of being to meet what is beyond itself. For us this thirst is named by the city.
The city nurtures and challenges our humanity, with a welter of opportunities to approach what is concealed by strangeness; to approach the strange, or even the familiar is always fraught with the ambiguity of the possible. Will the magic of human warmth turn the gossamer veil of difference into a mystery to be revealed with care and love, or will the impenetrable barrier of difference harden and isolate a person or a group forever in recalcitrant animosity? Whatever categories and classification we impose upon our experience in order to turn it into material for social science, this uncertainty is the only certainty we have in our living with others in a shared world.
“Full of merit yet poetically/Man dwells….”
…says Holderlin, the German poet. To be at home anywhere, is to create a world in which you can be at home: poetry is creation, making in the sense of bringing into being something that has not existed before and exists only in what you have created.
Would this poetic description of making a home and then of being at home in it, dwelling within it not as an outsider but as if you are ‘at home’, include the presence across the road of people who watch your movements through the curtains and ask you why you were out late last Tuesday ? Heidegger as a philosopher of experience, commenting upon these lines, also asks how dwelling can be poetic, when at the very least we are harassed by the housing shortage. Yet, despite everything, when man can, he achieves his highest spiritual comfort on earth in the very act of making his home. This is not an act out of which a solid thing appears; the very motions of life itself are anchored in a world that gives it a concrete here and now, and changes through this giving from ‘the’ world to ‘a’ world that stands in relation to my self, both self and world moulding each other in concert and contradiction. Had I been an artist this would have been poetry – but because I am no more than human, it is only my life in the world, created by entering and dwelling in an alien place.
It is a world now which you can measure by your footfalls echoing in its paths, glimpse in the sky that peeps out at you when you cross the railway tracks to return to the unwelcome emptiness of a 5pm single accommodation, find peace in a community of care growing from the condition in which one finds oneself amidst others. This is not a work of art or a bridge or even a home – soon the rooms will be bare, and the lives will move, maybe to another city or to another room in the city or to a permanent home somewhere. Our very lives grow in the climate of these realities, and our beings cannot be free of them.
Walking on the streets of a city in which I until recently knew no one, I am certain that I will not meet anyone I know. Yet one day, I do meet someone I know, someone who does not know where I come from, but that I ‘live here’.
Am I now an insider, no longer a migrant but a city woman : perhaps the city has given me a job, a relationship, a friend, confidence and pain – all which I can call my own , generated by my being here, and here alone ?
The human, full of merit, is capable of understanding the uniqueness of an other because she is herself a unique design for being, a singular actualized “life”. She can learn to appreciate in an other the same ability that she recognizes in herself to make a dwelling, to make a singular life in the face of alien-ness. Both merit and the ability to make, poetically, are held together by the word ‘yet’, Holderlin not opposing one to the other, but gifting to the human being both at once, with the poet’s belief that man will in his human capacity, transform his merit into action with the livening touch of the human warmth that the poet calls poetry.
Out of the narrative of our experience in an alien city, struggling against the alienation of categories and classifications, of conventions that bind and adventures that beckon, we have made our lives. In the dialectic between merit and poetic ability, a human life, like a wild flower, is. In the time of its blossoming, we have unlearnt the received wisdom that lives are given to us to live according to the dictates of the normal or the extraordinary, the remarkable or the ordinary. These are words we ourselves craft for ‘life in general’ and suffer the consequences in our own particular living. We have learnt the recalcitrant fact of otherness that brings home to us the reality of difference, the reality of being in the world. We have learnt that lives are made by humans themselves, in company and in contradiction with humans, as diverse and as wonderful as one’s own self, revealed in the community with others.
Ipshita Chanda is Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She has been ICCR Visiting Professor of Indian Culture, Georgetown University (2013–14). A member of the Faculty Team in the International Faculty Exchange Programme of the Virginia Council for International Education and the Virginia Community College System, 2008–09, she has written extensively in books/journals including the edited volume Shaping the Discourse: Women’s Writings in Bengali Periodicals: 1865–1947 (Stree, 2014); Packaging Freedom: Feminism and Popular Culture (Stree, 2003). She is also a SAGE author.
SAGE India: https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/selfing-the-city/book258466/
SAGE UK: https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/selfing-the-city/book258466/
SAGE US: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/selfing-the-city/book258466/